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Political Prisoners Released in Tunisia

Hundreds of political prisoners in Tunisia have been conditionally released since November 6.

"This is a significant gesture by a government whose human rights record has been under increasing scrutiny, both domestically and internationally," said Hanny Megally, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch. "However, we are still far from fulfilling the government's long-standing claim that there are no political prisoners in Tunisia; hundreds more remain imprisoned."

Most of those freed appear to be sympathizers or low-ranking adherents of Tunisia's banned Islamist movement, imprisoned for such offenses as attending meetings of an "unauthorized" organization or making donations to the families of imprisoned members. No high-ranking members of the movement are known to have been released.

In addition, several accused members of the banned leftist Tunisian Communist Workers Party (PCOT) have been released, including five who were sentenced on political charges after an unjust trial in July that was observed by Human Rights Watch and other rights groups. They include Ali Jellouli, Nejib Baccouchi, Noureddine Benticha, Chadli Hammami, and Taha Sassi. The five had spent more than nineteen months in prison; at least two of their codefendants, Fahem Boukaddous and Bourhan Gasmi, reportedly remain behind bars.

Human Rights Watch urged Tunisian authorities to ensure that released political prisoners enjoy their civil and political rights. In general, ex-political prisoners in Tunisia are subjected to long-term restrictions and harassment, some of it court-sanctioned and some arbitrary. They are required to present themselves frequently—often once daily— at a local police station. They and their relatives face frequent police searches and questioning, and are usually prevented from obtaining a passport and often employment. In addition, all whose releases are "conditional" could be returned to prison upon the decision of the Ministry of Interior. In an encouraging development, a large but undetermined number of previously released prisoners who had until now been subjected to such abusive practices have, since November 6, been informed by the police that they will no longer be required to report regularly to the police. Some, however, were reportedly warned at the same time to refrain from political activity.

The release of political prisoners is part of a reported amnesty of more than 1,000 inmates, including hundreds serving time for common crimes. It occurs one week ahead of Tunisia's scheduled meeting with the European Union's Council of Ministers in Brussels, within the framework of the E.U.-Tunisian Association Agreement. That accord stipulates in Article 2 that human rights and democratic principles "constitute an essential element of the agreement." (Human Rights Watch, together with Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights, and Reporters sans Frontières, wrote an open letter November 5 to the E.U. Council of Ministers urging that human rights be a priority at the November 16 meeting.)

The releases do not yet appear to have been accompanied by other measures to address Tunisia's grave human rights problems, including the harassment of human rights and independent political activists. On November 9, Political and Human Rights Activist Mostapha Ben Jaafar was scheduled to appear before an investigating judge to answer to four charges stemming from two communiqués critical of the October 24 elections that Ben Jaafar issued in the name of the Democratic Forum. The Forum is a political association that has been refused legal recognition since Ben Jaafar co-founded it in 1994. Ben Jaafar faces charges of maintaining an "unrecognized" association, insulting "the public order," "spreading false information aiming to disturb the public order," and "distributing leaflets likely to disturb the public order." The hearing was postponed, at the request of the defense, until November 16.

Yesterday, Moncef Marzouki appeared before an investigative judge to face the same charges as Ben Jaafar, as well as a fifth charge: defamation of the judiciary. The hearing was postponed until November 17. Marzouki, a veteran human rights activist, is spokesperson of the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (CNLT), an independent human rights monitoring organization founded one year ago that has continued to criticize abuses in Tunisia despite the government's rejection of its application for legal recognition. The charges relate to communiqués issued by the CNLT, including a recent one regarding a strike by prisoners that referred to the lack of judicial independence in Tunisia.

"As some Tunisians are being freed from prison," Megally observed, "others like Ben Jaafar and Marzouki are facing prosecution and possibly jail for exercising their right to criticize rights violations and urge more democracy. Amnesties are important, but what Tunisia needs most is a long-term commitment to respect the right of its citizens to speak and associate peacefully without fear of prosecution or reprisal."

For Further Information:
Eric Goldstein (609)279-2813
Hanny Megally (212)216-1230

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